Acknowledgement that France’s colonialism was a crime against humanity is historic, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
Emmanuel Macron’s big win in this week’s presidential elections in France is historic on many levels. Not only is he the youngest head of state on the global stage at the age of 39, but he is also the youngest president of France since Napoleon.
In terms of political tradition he has broken the mould in that he won as an independent, making it the first time since World War II that traditional parties from the left and the right have been ejected from the race.
Macron’s meteoric rise is a product of the widespread disillusionment in France with the long-standing political establishment that is perceived to have betrayed the will of the people.
This also explains the impressive gains made by France’s far right National Front, taking 34% of the vote.
Marine Le Pen managed to double the number of votes her father secured in the run-off election in 2002.
By giving Macron 66% of the vote, the French people have chosen the road of moderation and tolerance over that of xenophobia and narrow nationalism.
The electorate chose between two very different visions of what France is and what it should be. Macron represented an open and inclusive country while Le Pen wants to pull up the drawbridges. It is hoped that the people will reaffirm this commitment in the parliamentary elections on June 18, so that Macron will be able to fulfil his promises.
It should also be acknowledged, however, that voter apathy in France is at a high point, with voter turnout the lowest in 40 years, and a third of the populace choosing neither Macron or Le Pen. An estimated 4.2 million spoiled their ballots. The apathy has resulted in a compromise candidate who will build a new majority in the centre.
Macron fashioned his campaign along the lines of former US president Barak Obama’s inspiring message of “unity, change, and hope”, and voters were attracted to his unconventional peoples’ movement En Marche, or On the Move. But the irony of Macron’s win - which supposedly represents a backlash against the establishment - is that his agenda does not significantly deviate from existing policy positions. While Macron advocates economic reform, it is a gradualist approach, and the essence of his foreign policy positions represents continuity and consolidation.
Macron has urged the French people to embrace globalisation and the EU, which is what his former boss President Francois Hollande has stood for.
Macron will bring his youthful energy to the table, and drive a campaign to reinvigorate the EU and make it more relevant and empowered as a regional body. His big promise was to convince Germany to agree to a grand bargain for Europe that will see a closer integration of the eurozone.
In terms of his domestic socio-economic agenda, Macron won’t scrap the 35-hour work week, but will allow firms to negotiate in-house deals. He will attempt to relax labour regulations, lower social protections and reduce the role of the state.
These are issues he pushed for as minister of economy in Hollande’s cabinet, but he resigned twice in frustration at the slow pace of reforms. His challenge will be to lower France’s unemployment rate which stands at around 10% - significantly higher than Europe’s 8% or Germany’s 3.9%.
Perhaps the young leader’s greatest challenge will be to unite a nation that is arguably more divided than at any time in the nation’s history since 1945. There is constant anxiety over the danger of terror attacks, in addition to controversy over the way to address the stream of refugees and economic migrants who drain the country’s resources.
Linked to this challenge will be how France responds to the economic and political realities on the Africa continent.
For as long as African countries are steeped in conflict, poor governance and low developmental standards, there will be an unstoppable flow of humanity headed for European shores in search of a better life. If Macron turns a blind eye to these developmental imperatives, the crisis of the masses crossing the Mediterranean will never end.
It is heartening that Macron has been the first French presidential candidate who has publicly recognised the negative role France played in Africa’s history.
On a visit to Algeria in February, he called colonisation a crime against humanity: “It’s truly barbarous and its part of the past we need to confront by apologising to those against whom we committed these acts. We must not sweep this past under the carpet.”
France has never formally apologised for its 132-year colonisation of Algeria, with a succession of French presidents refusing to do so.
Algeria claims that 1.5 million Algerians died in the eight-year war of independence.
If Macron’s sentiments are anything to go by, he has shown he has a conscience, and just maybe that apology will be forthcoming in the next few years. According to some of his advisers, his administration is unlikely to change the trajectory of its policy approach towards Africa.
* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor